RISE OF THE IRON KINGDOM I

“Der Alte Fritz”
Frederick the Great leading the Prussians at Zorndrof.
Painting by Carl Röchling

One other state especially benefited from the new society in Europe organized around the balance of power by the territorial states. Prussia was best able to exploit the revolution in technology and tactics in warfare, as Britain was best able to benefit from the commercial advantages of relative tranquility on the continent and of maritime expansion beyond. Prussia, by happenstance as much as planning, had been shaped by its ruling family into an instrumental, highly effective territorial state seeking its aggrandizement in carefully selected limited wars, always adding territories that would increase rather than divert the power of the center, avoiding dynastic overextension, and above all, separating the person of the ruler from the state that he and the state’s system of bureaucracy served. This last, of course, is the constitutional watermark of the territorial state, and contrasts sharply with its constitutional predecessor.

The kingdom of Prussia began its modern course in 1618, when the electorate of Brandenburg and the duchy of Prussia were united under a Hohenzollern prince. Prussia was hitherto a small state on the Baltic in Poland, to the east of the Vistula, once inhabited by Lithuanian tribes who were conquered and converted by the Knights of the Teutonic Order. During the Thirty Years’ War, the Brandenburg electorate had played an insignificant role until the succession of Frederick William, known as the Great Elector. It was he who transformed the electorate into a kingly state, observing the example of Louis XIV. At the Peace of Westphalia, the Great Elector was able to gain valuable accessions of contiguous territory, and in 1653 he secured a small grant to raise an army of a few thousand men from the estates in which the landed aristocracy was the main voice;* in return, the nobility were confirmed in their privileges and were given full jurisdiction within their lands and a guarantee of preferment as to official posts; in addition, the towns were confirmed in their judicial immunities and guild rules. To finance the army the estates agreed to the assessment by royal officials of land values on which a modest tax was levied—the Gener-alkriegskommissariat. In so doing the estates compromised their traditional right to tax themselves. Frederick William promptly used this reform to leverage higher taxes; when some estates objected, he levied taxes by force. By these measures he was able to create a highly centralized absolutist monarchy and its necessary accompaniment, a standing army, which by 1672 was 45,000 strong. Virtually all state resources were subordinated to the building up of the army. The royal bureaucracy responsible for levying taxes to support the army extended its control over many aspects of Prussian commercial life: in the towns where the tax was raised by an excise on goods, and in the country where levies against harvests and rents supplied revenue, these Prussian officials constituted a supervisory arm of the king and intensified the increasing centralism of Prussian economic life. The Prussian victory against the Swedes at Fehrbellin in 1675 had shaken Europe,  and the Great Elector’s successor, Frederick III, was recognized as King Frederick I of Prussia by the emperor. Superficial as this recognition may appear to us, it fulfilled a prerequisite for the formation of a territorial state by giving to the subjects of the Prussian crown a common name. Frederick’s son resumed the policy of strengthening the army.

This figure is well known to historians from Macaulay’s description: Frederick William I did indeed, it seems, walk into private houses and inspect the family dinner, and cane idlers when he happened to meet them on the street, and did fly into inexplicable rages as well as fits of depression. But he also first introduced universal conscription into military service, while exempting the bourgeois taxpayers, taking care to send peasant soldiers back to their farms at harvest time, and nurturing a textile industry with state purchases. By the time of his death in 1740, Prussia had a highly efficient bureaucracy, large financial reserves, and the fourth largest army in Europe (although the state ranked only tenth in territory and thirteenth in population).

In the same year, 1740, the Austrian emperor Charles VI died. With Charles, the male line died out and the throne passed to his daughter Maria Theresa. The last years of Charles’s reign had been clouded by his fears for her succession, and so he had persuaded the other European powers to subscribe to the Pragmatic Sanction, an agreement according to which they promised to observe and defend the integrity of Austrian possessions under Maria Theresa. Among the signers was Frederick II, the new king of Prussia.

Nevertheless, without warning, Frederick invaded Silesia, an Austrian possession that lay between the Brandenburg and Prussian lands of his state. In the ensuing three wars, he managed to retain Silesia, despite overwhelmingly adverse odds, and thereby almost doubled the size of his small kingdom. The following excerpt is from Frederick’s memorandum on the matter to his ministers:

Silesia is the portion of the [Austrian] heritage to which we have the strongest claim and which is most suitable to the House of Brandenburg. The superiority of our troops, the promptitude with which we can set them in motion, in a word, the clear advantage we have over our neighbors, gives us in this unexpected emergency an infinite superiority over all other powers of Europe…. England could not be jealous of my getting Silesia, which would do her no harm, and she needs allies. Holland will not care, all the more since the loans of the Amsterdam business world secured on Silesia will be guaranteed. If we cannot arrange with England and Holland, we can certainly make a deal with France, who cannot frustrate our designs and will welcome the abasement of the [Austrian] house. Russia alone might give us trouble. If the empress lives,… we can bribe the leading counsellors. If she dies, the Russians will be so occupied that they will have no time for foreign affairs… All this leads to the conclusion that we must occupy Silesia before the winter and then negotiate. When we are in possession we can negotiate with success.

To this remarkable document, Craig and George say only, “This memorandum really requires no comment. Here is a mind completely dominated by Staats raison, a mind that admits no legal or ethical bonds to state ambition.” Although this term translates to “reasons of state,” it has a connotation unique to the territorial state, in contrast to raison d‘état and to ragione di stato, which, as we have seen, reflect their respective constitutional origins. Staats raison is a rationale given on behalf of the State, an imperative that compels its strategic designs (such as the seizure of a proximate province for geostrategic reasons). It identifies the state with the country, the land. The raison d‘état is a reason invoked on behalf of a king, justifying his acts as being those imposed on him by the State (such as aid to Protestant princes by a Catholic king); it identifies the king with the State when he takes on the role of the state. Ragione di stato are reasons that distinguish the state code of behavior from the moral code of the prince (such as deceit or treachery) when the state takes on the role of the prince and the prince is relieved of his moral obligations as an individual. Each phrase, though it translates into the same English words, belongs to that constitutional order within which it acquired use—the territorial state, the kingly state, and the princely state, respectively.

Frederick’s seizure of Silesia had profound effects on the future of Germany, for when Austria lost Silesia, with its large population and important commercial resources, the western half of the Austrian empire ceased to be predominantly German, and Prussia became the primary force in Germany. Two further wars confirmed Frederick’s gains: the War of the Austrian Succession (1740 – 1748), in which various states abandoned the Pragmatic Sanction and joined Prussia in a bid for Austrian territories in the Netherlands, Italy, and Bohemia, and the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763), in which Prussia was supported only by Hanover and Great Britain (which took the war to North America and India, where British success was finally achieved). The Prussia of the Great Elector who inherited parcels of territory along the vulnerable north German plain, repeatedly crossed and recrossed by brutal mercenaries of every contending power in the Thirty Years’ War, had become one of the great powers of Europe in little more than twenty years. Moreover, the Great Elector’s Prussia, which had been so carefully modeled on the French kingly state, was transformed by his great-grandson, now called Frederick the Great, into a territorial state of singular intensity. It was Frederick, who entertained no self-doubts about his role at the apex of Prussian political society, who nevertheless described himself not as the incarnation of the State but as its “first servant.”

What sort of power was the Prussian state? It was highly stratified; it carefully husbanded its resources; it emphasized loyalty to the State rather than to the dynasty; it encouraged economic growth in manufactures, trade, and agriculture rather than stripping these enterprises of their wealth for the Crown; and it derived all of these imperatives from a desire to create and maintain an army well beyond what most observers would have regarded as its means. In Frederick’s view, the State must assure a careful balance between classes within the State, and between economic power and the diversion of economic resources to the military. To accomplish this he insisted that only members of the nobility could serve as officers, and that noble lands could not be sold to peasants or townsmen; that peasant lands must not be absorbed by bourgeois or noble acquisition, and that only those peasants who could be spared from agricultural duties should be recruited to the army; and that townspeople were most useful to the state as producers of wealth and thus “should be guarded as the apple of one’s eye.” Frederick’s soldiers felt no great loyalty to him as a person. Indeed, in his political memoir, he confides that, during the first Silesian wars, “he had made a special effort to impress upon his officers the idea of fighting for the country of Prussia.”

In all of these respects, Frederick the Great typified the ruler of a territorial state. His objectives were territorial and statist, rather than dynastic and personal or religious. It is intriguing that even the training of troops reflected the attributes of the state Frederick created, but not so surprising because the state itself had been crafted to provide resources and a structure for warfare. This is evident in the iron discipline that Frederick instilled in the Prussian forces. The goal of this discipline was to make the army into an instrument that could respond to a single strategic will. Frederick once remarked that his soldiers must be more afraid of their officers than of their enemies. Officers and men must understand that every act “is the work of a single man.” “No one reasons, everyone executes.” Men who are trained to march smartly can also turn quickly and in unison in battle. At Lentzen, Frederick’s men suddenly began a flank attack with an about-face. An army thus trained can achieve tactical mobility, becoming skilled in quickly shifting from marching order to battle order, remain steady under withering fire, and, most important, respond to a unified strategic vision. An army trained in this way, Frederick repeatedly said, could provide full scope to the art of generalship.

What kind of generalship was that to be? The answer is consistent with the answer to the question “what kind of statesmanship does the territorial state exact from its leaders?” Strategy, which is the art of the general, is the answer to the question posed by constitutional imperatives, the objects of the statesman. But constitutional imperatives, like the constitutional order itself, change in response to the demands of innovations acquired by strategy. A state that presents a new model, constitutionally, like the territorial state—which identifies the State with the land of its people—will succeed or fail depending on how it is able to adapt new forms of strategy to serve that model. And these new strategic forms will inevitably impose themselves on the constitutional order. The strategic innovations of Frederick and the Prussian state were so dramatically successful that they changed the shape of warfare—and of the State itself—for all Europe. Palmer observes of this new form:

Battle, with troops so spiritually mechanized, was a methodical affair. Opposing armies were arrayed according to pattern, almost as regularly as chessmen… on each wing cavalry, artillery fairly evenly distributed along the rear, infantry battalions drawn up in two parallel solid lines… each… composed of three ranks each rank firing as at a single command while the other two reloaded…

According to Frederick, marching order was determined by battle order: troops should march in columns so arrayed that by a quick turn the column presented itself as a rank, firing in lines with cavalry on its flanks. Because a battle order of long unbroken lines was as vulnerable as it was murderous, Frederick designed the “oblique order,” which involved the advance of one wing by successive echelons while the other wing remained steady, minimizing exposure to the weaker end. This either gained a quick victory by a flanking attack, rolling up the enemy’s line or, if failing, tended to minimize losses as the hitherto static wing maneuvered to cover the withdrawal of the extended wing. Such a general tends to avoid cataclysmic engagements; he looks for set battles, preferably sieges, and tries to acquire fortresses. Forts, Frederick wrote, were “mighty nails which hold a ruler’s provinces together.” Generalship of this kind is after all territorial, both tactically and strategically: “To win a battle means to compel your opponent to yield you his [territorial] position.”

These military ideas were a dimension of Frederick’s overall views as a statesman, and it was Frederick who succeeded William III as the model of the territorial state leader. He carefully maneuvered to augment his state with territory that would actually contribute to the wealth or territorial integrity of the state—rather than vindicate dynastic claims—and that could be gained at reasonable costs in concert with the other powers of Europe. The most striking example of this was the result of the First Partition of Poland, whereby, only nine years after the end of the Seven Years’ War, Prussia, Austria, and Russia made substantial territorial acquisitions while avoiding conflict. Frederick gives us his view of this incident in his History of My Own Times:

This was one of the most important acquisitions which we could make, because it joined Pomerania and Eastern Prussia; as it rendered us masters of the Vistula we gained the double advantage of a defensible frontier to the kingdom and the power to levy considerable tolls on the Vistula, by which river the whole trade of Poland was carried on.

Once this vital property was gained—it closed Prussia’s territorial gap along the Baltic coast—Frederick immediately moved to improve it. Craftsmen, artisans, manufacturers, educators were all sent to colonize the area; marshes were drained; the Vistula was connected to the Oder and to the Elbe by a great canal.

Frederick was both a beneficiary and a strong supporter of the Utrecht system, even if he had made his debut on the European stage by a successful coup de main within that system.

The ambitious should consider above all that armaments and military discipline being much the same through Europe, and alliances as a rule producing an equality of force between belligerent parties, all that princes can expect from the greatest advantages at present is to acquire, by accumulation of successes, either some small city on the frontier or some territory which will not pay interest on the expense of the war [required to take it].

He saw clearly enough that war should be undertaken in proximity to one’s own frontiers, because of the “difficulty of providing food supplies at points distant from the frontier, and in furnishing the new recruits, new horses, clothing and munitions of war.” Above all, he relied on forces that, however well-drilled, had no moral enthusiasm or political conviction. For this reason he could not rely on his armies to live off occupied countries because they would desert if dispersed to forage, and their morale would collapse if their supplies were not regularly refreshed. For the same reason, his alliances were solely matters of strategic calculation, and thus he could never depend on support from ideologically sympathetic local parties in the countries he invaded. In order to preserve the authoritarian constitutional structure of the Prussian state, Frederick dared not excite the energy that lay dormant in nationalism. Indeed, this was the challenge of the territorial state: to make the State, rather than the person of the king, the object of constitutional and strategic concern without permitting the people to claim the State as their own. “My land,” “my country,” but not “my nation.” All of this stands in stark contrast to the style of warfare epitomized by Frederick the Great’s successor as the leading commander in Europe, Napoleon Bonaparte.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.